A 21st Century Science and Technology Hedge

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By Elizabeth Turpen – What is the post Cold War corollary to our nation’s nuclear deterrent?  Many assume that robust nuclear forensic capabilities – identifying the origins of the materials from a nuclear detonation – comprise one variation of deterrence appropriate to today’s environment.  But the buzz about nuclear forensics is just one element of identifying the scientific underpinnings of a 21st century S&T hedge.  The spectrum runs the gamut from nuclear proliferation to pandemics and biotechnology to nanotechnology.  Today’s threats to our security are increasingly rooted in the dual-use nature of rapid technological advances in a variety of scientific disciplines, including some particularly lethal combinations thereof.  Despite this reality, we have yet to define the key elements and begin building a robust, responsive S&T hedge appropriate to this century.  If we fail to define and invest in this future hedge, we could precipitate the loss of our global scientific edge.

Five decades of “progress” in developing lighter warheads of higher yield on more sophisticated delivery systems make it hard to shift easily to a new 21st century paradigm.  Just as the national security apparatus needs to adapt to complex and diffuse challenges, the scientific base responsive to that same spectrum requires a comprehensive rethink. Building the political will to make very difficult investments is a formidable challenge.  Congress’ cutting of funds in the administration’s stimulus bill for flu vaccines is just a symptom of the overarching problem. The intangible aspects of today’s S&T hedge makes it difficult to measure the return on investment. We all assume our Cold War investments in the nuclear deterrent were money well spent.  How do we build the political will to build and sustain today’s equivalent?  

Fortunately, we will not be starting from scratch. The Department of Energy dominates the field of federally funded laboratories offering an array of expertise along the spectrum and providing critical applied basic research and development capabilities for both civilian and defense needs. Furthermore, the Defense Department laboratories, the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control perform valuable functions along the threat spectrum.  However, we have neither a coherent map of the national security community’s needs nor a clear-eyed assessment of the current investments as they pertain to that community’s notions of a responsive infrastructure.  We have stovepiped agencies, some of which have their own federally funded research and development corporations (FFRDCs) and others who borrow from those that have or outsource requirements to the private industry.  Beyond the tangle and inherent inefficiencies that this situation fosters are the parochial or pet projects adopted by Members of Congress.

The S&T infrastructure necessary to obtain a 21st century hedge and regain our innovation edge is bigger and the relevant actors broader than the DOE laboratories – or the federal institutions in general.  Our public schools, industry and academia all have important roles to play in addressing the crisis.  President Obama clearly recognizes this fact.  But more federal funding is only part of the solution. The administration doubled the budgets of key agencies, such as the National Science Foundation and DOE’s Office of Science, and has made generous commitments to federal funding for science in our schools and universities.  Still, better integration and orchestration of the funding commitments within an overarching strategy is needed.  The administration needs to assess the state of US science and technology, especially our national security S&T infrastructure needs and objectives, and understand its links to our nation’s economic competitiveness and our national security. 

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Dr. Elizabeth Turpen is a Senior Associate with the Cooperative Nonproliferation Program at the Stimson Center.


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